The Incredible Importance of Touch for Babies

We can learn a lot about parenting by looking into parenting history to see the impact of common beliefs and practices. How sad are some of the stories for the babies and parents who were influenced by those in authority just a few generations ago!

The life-sustaining necessity of touch

In his seminal book, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, author Ashley Montagu [Harper and Row publishers, 1971] shares the following story:

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

During the 19th century more than half the infants in their first year of life regularly died from a disease called marasmus, a Greek word meaning ‘wasting away.The disease was also known as infantile atrophy or debility. As late as the second decade of the 20th century, the death rate for infants under one year of age in various foundling institutions throughout the United States was nearly one hundred percent.

It was in 1915 Dr. Henry Dwight Chapin, the distinguished New York pediatrician, in a report on children’s institutions in 10 different cities made the staggering disclosure that in all but one institution every infant under two years of age died. The various discussants of Dr. Chapin’s report, at the Philadelphia meeting of the American pediatric Society, fully corroborated his findings from their experience.” [p. 77]

He describes another report of 200 infants admitted to various institutions in Baltimore in which 90% died within a year and that the 10% that survived… “did so apparently because they were taken from the institutions for short times and placed in care of foster parents or relatives.” [p. 78] This marked the beginning of the closure of orphanages and foundling homes in favor of foster care systems, where the mortality rate significantly improved because children received the emotional care they needed.

More sad statistics

An even more dramatic story occurred in 1211, when Frederick II, Emperor of Germany, in an attempt to discover the natural “language of God,” raised dozens of children in silence. Frederick wanted to find out what kind of speech children would have when they grew up if no one ever spoke to them.

He allowed foster mothers and nurses to provide physical sustenance to the children, to bathe and wash them, but in no way to interact with language or in any kind, tender or loving way. Frederick never found out what “God’s preferred language” was because it never emerged. The children never spoke any language and all ultimately died in childhood (van Cleve, 1972).

The invisible forces that impact health

There are so many invisible forces in the lives of children, especially during infancy, that have profound impact on their health. Over and over the importance of loving relationships – which includes being physically touched, whether coddled, stroked, swaddled or hugged – can be contrasted with those practices we would now consider to be cold-hearted and cruel, resulting in tragic outcomes.

It can be enlightening for parents to appreciate how far we have come in our parenting practices. It can also help us appreciate that in our own family histories there probably were generations in which infants and young children were not given the loving physical contact that all human beings require in order to thrive.

I remember my mother telling stories of having to leave my brother in his crib to cry for as many as four hours because children were not to be rocked and held. She reported standing outside his room, crying while he cried and yet feeling she had no choice but to follow the doctor’s orders.

When I was born four years later, the pediatrician said, “Well, the good news is, you are allowed to rock her and don’t have to let her cry. We are being told that it is okay to hold babies.” I wonder sometimes if my great desire to help parents nurture their children may in part come from my own family history. My older brother did not receive the loving affection I did, which could explain him being very sickly as a child, and even now in his 70s to be what some experts might call a Type A personality.

Parents are encouraged to be generous in giving loving affection to their children from the time they are born until they are grown, and beyond that. Creating families in which children receive a steady diet of gentle physical touch can contribute significantly to a sense of security and a lifetime of openness to giving and receiving love.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. What are some of your family’s beliefs with regard to holding and cuddling infants, especially to comfort them when they are crying? How have these beliefs impacted your parenting?
  2. How does the information contained in this blog impact your beliefs about holding and touching your children?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network